r some time Hamas, backed by Hezbollah and Iran, has been randomly firing rockets at civilians in Israel (thousands of them since 2005). Retaliatory strikes from Israel have been tricky because Hamas has turned Gaza into a complex maze of tunnels where Hamas militants emerge in civilian clothes to fire missiles, then disappear back inside.
Central to the strategy of Hamas is using their own women and children as shields from Israeli retaliation. Hamas’ rocket and weapons caches, including rocket launchers, have been discovered in and under mosques, schools and civilian homes. According to intelligence reports, even the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas is hiding in underground housing beneath the Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in Gaza. These tactics are nothing less than sinister, illegal and inhumane.
From all indications, the threat from Hamas is escalating as it’s receiving better training and acquiring more sophisticated weaponry. In response, Israel felt they needed to act immediately and with significant force against Hamas. The strategic decision the Israelis have made this time is to approach their incursion as a war, not a police operation. This decision paved the way for Israel to attack Hamas, bringing all its strength to bear, resulting in grave consequences for the non-combatant citizens living in the Gaza.
Because the magnitude of Israel’s retaliation has caused many civilian casualties, it has created an international uproar both in the Arab world and the West. In just one episode, 43 people died when the Israelis shelled a street next to a United Nations school where refugees were taking shelter. Though no one rejects the right of Israel to defend itself, there are questions about the intensity of Israel’s retaliatory attacks. For many, Israel’s response is tantamount to using a bazooka to kill a fly. The international cry is that Israel is ignoring the “rule of proportionality.”
Israeli officials claim they are obeying the rules of war and trying hard not to hurt noncombatants, but they insist that Hamas is using civilians as human shields to protect themselves, making it difficult for Israel to avoid killing innocents.
As a Christ-follower, I find myself in a bit of a conundrum about all this. Something in me wants to give extra room for the rationale of Israel just because it’s Israel. The Bible tells us that God loves Israel—that it is the “apple of his eye” (Zechariah 2:8, TNIV). It also claims that whoever blesses Israel will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). I want to do whatever I can to bless the Jewish people. But does that translate into absolute, unconditional support for whatever the Israeli government does? Many Christians hold that anything less than complete support is anti-Semitic.
I’m for the nation of Israel and for the Jewish people, but aren’t all nations supposed to be judged by standards of justice and fairness no matter who they are? It’s true that God called Israel to be a special nation, but how? Referring to the future nation of Israel, God told Abraham, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). To say that Israel is to “bless” implies people groups should be better off by encountering them. It implies that God had a destiny in mind for Israel where it would be a demonstration of God’s goodness, justice and kindness to the world. Imbedded within the Jewish story over the centuries was a higher cause, not just for the Jews, but for all of humanity. The Jewish people were chosen to be God’s laboratory for humanity—the people to whom God revealed His commandments in order to show what a full human life can be. Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles, attracting them to the one true God and a new way of living.
But Israel was not always faithful to its destiny. God repeatedly sent prophets to Israel, calling it to standards that it had abandoned. One of those standards was called the lex talionis, or the law of retaliation (Leviticus 24:17-21; Deuteronomy 19:14-21). The intent of this standard was to ensure that the injurers would be given retributive injury in exactly the same way as they had injured. Under this rule, justice would be achieved through equalization.
Dallas Willard writes concerning this command: “More was not to be done than the injurer did. That was a major point of the old law and a great advance for civilization. If someone broke your arm, you were not to break both arms in return, or even one arm and a finger. There was to be equalization of injury, and then a stop to injury and counterinjury. No insignificant or easy task, of course, as contemporary life around the world or in our own homes and workplaces shows.”
Stepping back and questioning whether or not Israel has used force beyond what is proportional under the lex talionis (much less the conventional laws of war) seems reasonable to me—certainly not anti-Semitic. The international community should have the right to raise questions and to call any government into accountability for their actions. Shouldn’t those of us who love peace support that call? When I examine Israel’s choices like I would that of any other nation, I find myself appalled that they’re not doing more to protect the innocents.
The psalmist wrote, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” As believers, we need to be committed to pray for the peace of Israel and to speak for its cause. But praying for “peace” doesn’t mean that we are to pray that Israel gets whatever it wants whenever it wants it. The word for peace here is the Hebrew word, shalom. Shalom means peace, but it’s more than the absence of conflict—I don’t think we should be praying for Israel to “win” so that it has an absence of conflict. Shalom means peace is present because all things are appropriate. Shalom fosters appropriateness on the behalf of all parties with the result being an enduring peace.
Praying for the peace of Israel is a cry for God to help it act appropriately—no matter the cost. It’s a commitment to the high road of respecting and honoring God by respecting and honoring people. Israel’s call to shalom was a clarion call when God brought it to life through the loins of Abraham. That call remains clear in 2009.